chapter  11
22 Pages

Of Labor, Work, and Recognition

Of Labor, Work, and Recognition As a word, "job" appears to have no ancestry. It is known, though, that originally it meant "a definite piece of work." Its counterpart in the real world was a physical action that left a mark on its object. Employment was something quite different: a type of relation between people, a relation that is intangible but nonetheless real. (To see the distinction, one has but to recall expressions such as "he was employed by the job.")

"Work" is sometimes spoken of in one breath with "labor," but each of the two words again has its own history and its distinct meaning. As already noted, "work" denotes activity, originally an activity that "forms and shapes the thing.") The word is related to "wrought," and farther down the road is the Greek word ergon, pointing to "energy." In German, das Werk is associated with wirken, to effect, to bring to pass. Until the sixteenth century, the French equivalent of "to work" was ouvrer, a word which survives in ouvrier, worker. 2

"Labor" was, to start with, "pain," the pain experienced in performing the action, a pain comparable to other kinds of physical or mental suffering. The French verb travailler belongs to the same family as tourmenter and torturer. In both English and French, the corresponding nouns also denote the pain of childbirth. In German, arbeit shares its root with arb, "orphan( ed)": if the worst came to the worst, the child bereaved of parents was "hired out" to do hard labor for strangers.3 On the whole, though, to experience the pain---to "labor" in this sense of the word--was a human condition rather than a social designation.